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Controversial issues raised

Controversial issues raised

Who’s watching the funeral directors? That was the question posed by Dr Kate Woodthorpe at the London Funeral Exhibition 2011 at Epping Forest Burial Park in July.

Dr Woodthorpe, from the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath, was one of several speakers at the event, held in association with the British Institute of Funeral Directors, and designed to give the public inspiration, ideas and practical advice to make a funeral special.

In a presentation that prompted much discussion among the audience, Dr Woodthorpe outlined the current industry structure by ownership, number of funerals and costs, as well as the industry codes of practice and training. She also identified the tension that comes from caring within a commercial environment.

Lack of regulation
She presented the results of a survey conducted among students on the University’s Foundation Degree in Funeral Service, which revealed a lack of regulation of the industry; the fact that there are no universal standards among funeral directors and no benchmarks for measuring standards; that many firms are resistant to change and concerns that staff are not valued through remuneration or in other ways.

Among the other speakers, Brian Jenner, convenor of the Six Feet Under Convention, spoke about the impact of the American TV series and its portrayal of death and funerals, and Angie Whitaker, whose husband was interred in Epping’s sister burial park at Beaconsfield, outlined the reasons to want someone buried in a woodland burial ground.

Her presentation was a prelude to the screening of the short film Natural Burial and the Church of England. Dr Hannah Rumble was instrumental in its production (along with Professor Douglas Davies from Durham University) and she introduced the film and took questions.

Charles Cowling, author of The Good Funeral Guide, also spoke, asking the question ‘Funerals – who needs ’em?’. In a passionately delivered address, Charles referred to surveys that show seven out of 10 people know what music they want for their funeral, a finding, he said, that raises the question of whether death really is the taboo subject so often claimed.

Funeral must be transformative
Charles’s main thrust was that we have the opportunity to create better funerals now more than at any time in the past. A funeral, he said must be transformative; a good funeral needs to get the dead where they need to be while getting the living to where they should be.

His blueprint was that anyone arranging a funeral should take their time and, controversially, that families should not be limited by what the deceased person wanted. He suggested that the funeral should reflect the needs of the living; it should also be embraced as part of a wider range of rituals – the ceremony leading to burial or cremation was only one of a number of opportunities to mark the death.

Direct cremations
Charles also speculated on whether Canada’s growing trend of ‘direct cremations’ (a practical and low-cost cremation-only option for people who don’t want a funeral service) was likely to catch on here and whether people had become disillusioned with funerals. Either way, he suggested, the young people of today, are likely to reinvent our death culture.

Besides speakers, the event also played host to a wide range of exhibitors, together with organisations giving advice about funerals, pre-need plans and wills. Several funeral directors were also on hand to give advice to the public.

During the day carriage rides were available around the grounds and the afternoon included a release of doves. All proceeds from the day went to children’s bereavement charity Winston’s Wish.

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